Dedicated teachers often talk about building meaningful connections with students as an important part of a successful teaching experience. For those teaching outside their own countries, forming these kinds of connections frequently involves taking additional steps to overcome cultural and language barriers. In this interview, Adam VanVleck discusses how his efforts to learn and use the local language while teaching English in South Korea played a key role in his overall success.
Adam, what prompted you to go to South Korea to teach English?
I had just finished college and wanted to learn a new language, one that included a different alphabet. In college I had taken Korean history as an elective, so I decided to go to South Korea, learn the culture, and have an adventure. I went by myself, not knowing the language at all. After I arrived, I found a free language exchange with Korean students who wanted to practice English. That was how I began learning Korean, and it was a win-win.
How old were your students, and in what kind of school did you teach?
The students ranged in age from 7 to about 17 and they were grouped in classes by age. I taught in a hagwon, which is a private academy that students attend outside regular school hours to further their learning.
Which impressions have stayed with you since your experience?
At the beginning, the culture shock was significant. For the first few months, I looked forward to going to work because it was the only place where I could communicate with others who spoke English. Outside school I was afraid to go too far from home, fearing I would get lost and not be able to ask for directions to get home, or even tell someone my address. After four or five months, I began to feel comfortable getting around, and began to venture out more. I developed the ability to communicate in Korean, and that has stayed with me. I lived there for a year, returned to the US for five months (as I continued to study Korean), then went back to Korea for another year and a half. At this point, I feel conversant in the language.
What were your goals for the school year?
Since I wanted to learn the Korean language while teaching my language, I wanted to take in as much information as possible while benefiting my students. I also wanted to give my students a good impression of foreigners, so they would be encouraged to learn English. They didn’t get to meet many foreigners, and in fact I was the only foreign teacher in the school. Using Korean was an effective way to make a good impression.
How did you develop trust and rapport with your students?
I learned a lot of Korean everyday expressions, and the students and I played games in class. We learned about each other through sharing simple details about ourselves, such as using maps to show where we lived, talking about our families, that kind of thing. My using Korean was important and helped the students to be comfortable. Even if they spoke Korean and I responded in English, they understood me, and knew that I had understood them.
How did you encourage students who lacked confidence?
By getting to know the students and understanding their goals for learning English, I was able to help them achieve. For example, one student wanted to be a pilot, and a good command of English is important for that. With that goal in mind, I encouraged him by not explicitly pointing out his errors, but instead just showing him the right way. In general, I tried to make things as fun as possible without having the students realize they were learning.
What were some of the most significant things you learned from your students?
The first thing was the Korean language; I learned by listening to them. I also learned more patience, how different people learn and interpret things, about different outlooks, and the importance of reading people and using an approach that is appropriate to the individual.
What do you feel were the biggest successes of your teaching year?
I think I built strong relationships with my co-workers, and was able to conquer the fear that I had in the beginning, learn the culture, and learn the language more thoroughly that if I had only spent a year or two in the country. I was able to conduct a fun and educational class, and provide motivation for the students to learn English and use it successfully.
As you taught and encouraged your students, what were your own sources of support and encouragement?
I would spend time de-stressing with friends, and if things got tough, I would chat with my family at home. That helped me to get my strength and energy back when I was feeling down or overwhelmed, and helped me to keep going. I also learned a lot about teaching. It was the first time I had ever taught, and I used many of my own past teachers as examples. I remembered their positive examples and incorporated those into my own teaching. Even though I had had no formal training, I adapted and made it work.
Did you find that your initial impressions of your students and your school had changed by the end of the school year? If so, how?
Definitely yes. At first, the students were shy and reserved until they become more comfortable with me. They didn’t really show much expression at the beginning. By the end, they were acknowledging what they did and did not understand. They were much more expressive, and I got to know their personalities much more. Every student was different.
What considerations do you feel are important for teachers seeking to work in foreign countries, as you did?
I think you must be willing and able to take in a new culture and a new language. If you don’t, and you’re going out and demanding that others speak your language, they will see it as disrespectful, and form a negative image of you and your country. You must be willing to learn a bit of their culture and their history. Once people see you making those efforts, they will take you in and open up to you. They will love seeing that you are trying. Some people who work in other countries don’t do this; one of my co-workers had not learned any Korean, even after five years, and while I had a very positive experience, his was very negative. Even if you’re not good at the language, it is very important to at least try, and that will lead to your having a very different experience.
What aspects of your past work do you hope to include in your future projects?
I want to incorporate my ability to adapt, learn new things, and pick them up quickly. I love learning and trying new things. I also look forward to employing my ability to see everyone’s different views and reactions, and using it for maximum benefit in a new situation, like sales or a team situation in which a team is working to present and implement a new idea.